As I’ve struggled with the incredible pressure of the season to buy in order to prove our love and our worth, I’ve been helped by considering how gift-giving is shaped by people’s relationship to the American Dream.
For those who are just too poor to even engage with the Dream, they may not buy much at all, though chances are that they’ll have significant feelings of lost or failure. Those who are trying hard to get on the first rung of the ladder, tantalized by the glittering prospect, may choose the cheap knock-offs, things that give the appearance of having a piece of the Dream. Those who have just a little discretionary income may choose to spend it on brand name products, consuming conspicuously as a signal to those around them that they are on their way—even if it could be argued that they can ill afford it.
Those who are more comfortably off may do the same, though often on a larger scale, and often with less strain on their budgets. They are probably both enjoying the attainment of the Dream, and keeping an eye on the possibility that times may not always be so good.
Then there are those whose wealth is secure; the Dream is theirs. They may choose fewer brand items, and more unique and expensive gifts. They may be dismissive about all the hype of buying, but still use this season as an important time to prove their love through what their money can buy. Or their wealth may give them space to do things differently. If they choose to disengage from the dance with the expectations of the Dream, they may find themselves with some affinity to those who are just too far from it to participate at all, or those who are immersed in a culture that has different and more potent dreams.
I was fortunate to grow up in a culture such as the latter, where a combination of thrifty habits from the Depression, a strong religious ethic of simplicity, and a passion for creativity in my family buffered me from the worst commercialism of the holiday. We all made gifts for each other, and I passed that tradition on to my children. Then when they grew to be teenagers, we traded it in for a light-hearted outing to our favorite thrift-store to go treasure hunting together.
It’s easy to just be judgmental of others’ choices during the holidays. But when I frame my thinking in the light of a relationship to the American Dream, I find myself able to better empathize with the variety of reasons to buy. And it sharpens my understanding of the need to throw out our current interpretation of the Dream—so exclusively focused on material acquisition—and learn to talk together about what we really value. If we talked less about shopping for our dreams, and more about family, community, health, lives of meaning, and values like integrity, courage, compassion, respect and inclusion, whatever is in those gift-wrapped boxes would carry much less weight.